Sunday, 7 August 2016

"The Fireman" by Joe Hill

Year of Publication:  2016
Length:  752 pages
Genre:  Science-fiction, horror, apocalypse

The world is plagued by an incurable spore nicknamed "Dragonscale".  It initially manifests itself as beautiful, intricate tattoo-like markings in black and gold all over the host's body.  This may be all well and good, however, there is the slight problem that sooner or later the spore causes the host to burst into flame and burn to death.  With fires on every street corner, and anyone liable to burst into flame at a moment's notice, civilization collapses with the human race divided between those who are infected with Dragonscale and those terrified of infection.  Cheery school nurse Harper Grayson becomes infected with the spore at around the time that she becomes pregnant.  Knowing that there is a very real probability that the baby will not be infected with Dragonscale, Harper determines to stay alive at least long enough to give birth.  Escaping from her increasingly unstable husband, Jakob, Harper discovers a community of the infected who have discovered a way to control the Dragonscale infection.  However, as time goes on, and conditions worsen in the camp, Harper's situation becomes increasingly perilous, not least because of the constant threat of discovery by roving bands of vigilante "Cremation Squads" who hunt and execute the infected.  Harper's only hope of survival lies with the Fireman, John Rookwood, who has learned the ability to not only control Dragonscale, but to harness it's power and use it to his own ends.

The theme of the world devastated by a deadly disease is hardly new or original, but this book at least has an imaginative plague.  Joe Hill is a very talented writer and he manages the no mean feat of keeping the reader's attention over a very long novel.  That being said, it is quite flabby in places, particularly there are scenes in the infected community, which could be cut, but the characters are engaging enough that it is fun to spend time with them.  Harper is a likeable and engaging lead character who is trying not just to survive, but to retain her innate goodness and optimism in the face of the constant horror she's confronted with.  This is at times a very bloody, gruelling book, but the theme of it is essentially hope, and it has a big beating heart at it's core.  Hill has a tendency towards putting in a few too many in-jokes, there are several references, subtle and not so subtle, to amoing others The Stand by Stephen King, and the plot rides too heavily on coincidence in some places, but this is still a cut above most apocalyptic novels.  As someone who is not a particular fan of that genre, and who approached this book with some caution, I really enjoyed it a lot.  It's a big, exciting, entertaining and often powerful read about hope in the face of chaos.



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